03 February 2010

Lab Experiment - Atomic Dogs

Change agents need to be students of what causes people to forward articles, videos and ideas that 'go viral' - but what makes this? The New Scientist created its own experiment...the video itself is not the most riveting, and how one could measure an increase in scientific understanding after watching it I don't know...but who could resist golden retrievers?!

Excerpt from The New Scientist, 28 December 2009

'It is a cold November evening and I am perched atop a tall stepladder in a village hall outside London. On the floor, 16 golden retrievers stare up at me bemused. They are arranged in a square, four by four. I watch through the viewfinder of my video camera. This, I think to myself, could make me famous.

It all came about at the behest of my editor. We want you to write about viral videos, he had told me a couple of weeks earlier. Go and find out why some videos go viral. What makes people share them? It sounded straightforward enough. He sent me a link to Charlie Bit My Finger, a video of a baby biting a toddler. It is currently YouTube's most watched video of all time.

"I want you to make your own viral and become internet famous," he said.

"If this can get 135 million hits, you can do it too." Without wanting to spoil the ending, I can reveal that Charlie's record remains intact. Still, despite my worst fears, my video turned out to be a surprising success.

Watch the average homemade viral video of, say, a skateboarding dog, and you could be forgiven for thinking that going viral is easy. In fact, the odds are stacked against you. Approximately 1 million new videos are uploaded to the web daily, according to some estimates. Up to half of those are on YouTube, which claims 20 hours of footage are posted every minute.

The vast majority bomb. Less than 10 per cent of YouTube videos show any sign of viral behaviour, according to Riley Crane of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studied around 5 million of them. In most cases, the only hits they receive are those you would expect from family and friends plus a handful of people stumbling across them at random, he says.

To better understand what makes people share videos, I turned to Judith Donath of MIT, who studies online social networks. She argues that the factors driving people to share stuff over the web are not that different from the reasons apes pick bugs out of each other's fur: it's a way of establishing social bonds. Other researchers have argued that in human societies, language - especially gossip - has taken on the social function of such grooming. Sharing videos via email or within social networks is just the next step, Donath argues. "Sharing online is equivalent to small talk," she says. "It's a little gift of information. It shows 'I'm thinking of you'."

Video sharing is also a way of making a statement. "People use videos as a way of showing their position in the 'information ecology'," she says. "A video reflects on the person who sends it." In other words, people will pass on a video if they think it's cool - because it makes them look cool too...

Eventually, we hit upon a winning idea. I called it Pets Teach Science. The aim, as stated on our web page (youtube.com/user/PetsTeachScience), is "to demonstrate tricky scientific concepts ranging from quantum physics to chemical structure with the help of man's best friend and other furry companions". It was fun and had the potential to be copied by others to become an "internet meme".

The next question was what to film for the first episode. According to Bernardo Hubermann of HP Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, aspiring viral makers should throw everything they have into their initial effort. When he and his colleague Fang Wu analysed the performance of 10 million videos, they found that the probability of a video succeeding plummets if it is a user's second or third effort - even though the quality of the later videos is generally higher. "If you don't make it in your first submission, you probably won't make it," says Hubermann.

For what I had in mind, a degree of canine discipline was required, so I contacted a group of dog trainers called the Southern Golden Retriever Society Display Team based in Kent, UK. They agreed to help, and last month we made a film using 16 of their dogs to illustrate the structure of the atom. Some of the animals acted as the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, while the rest circulated to mimic the electron cloud...

A few days of shamelessly begging all my friends and family to disseminate the video garnered fewer than 1000 hits...

The big breakthrough came after a tip from Michael Wesch, an anthropologist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who studies the behaviour of visitors to YouTube. He does so using the methods his peers apply to studying remote tribes - by participating. His own videos have attracted more than 10 million views.

One of the key bits of advice he gave me was to send the video to a so-called "sneezer" - a media outlet or blogger that can quickly disseminate your video to a large number of people. "Almost every viral has a catalyst moment at which it has a big leap of, say, 100,000 viewers at once," he says. For the massive videos, that sneeze can be anything from a TV appearance to a tweet by a popular Twitterer, such as movie actor Ashton Kutcher to his several million followers. This catapults the video onto YouTube's daily "most popular" lists, and the chain reaction begins. Even if only 1 in 10 people continue to share the video, you have succeeded.

The sneezer hypothesis is backed up by Crane's statistical analysis. Though around a third of viral videos appear to spread gradually by word of mouth alone, the rest receive some kind of external plug that boosts their popularity.

My own sneeze came after I sent a link to the free London newspaper Metro. The paper gave Pets Teach Science an enthusiastic write-up, and the video's views surged by about 8000 within a few hours. It soon appeared on YouTube's "pets and animals" page. In the following days, The Huffington Post picked it up, providing another surge, and a link from the ├╝ber-blog Boing Boing almost doubled my hits overnight to more than 50,000.

As this article went to press, the video had been viewed more than 110,000 times, proving that with a little cunning, and some cute pets, anyone can make a video go viral...'

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